Punitive damages – The Court of Cassation opens the door in Italy

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Time to read: 7 min

With the recent sentence n° 16601/2017 the Italian Supreme Court (“Corte di Cassazione”) – changing its jurisprudence – opened to the possibility of recognizing in Italy foreign judgments containing punitive damages. In this post we will see what these punitive damages are about, under which conditions they will be recognized and enforced in Italy and, above all, which countermeasures may be implemented to deal with these new risks.

Punitive damages are a monetary compensation – typical of common law legal systems – awarded to an injured party that goes beyond what is necessary to compensate the individual for losses. Normally punitive damages are imposed when the person who caused the damage acted with wilful misconduct and gross negligence.

With punitive damages, other than the compensatory function, the reimbursement of damages assumes also a sanctioning purpose, typical of criminal law, also acting like a deterrent towards other potential lawbreakers.

In the legal systems that provide for punitive damages, the recognition and the quantification of the highest compensation, most of the time, are delegated to the Judge.

In the United States of America punitive damages are a settled principle of common law, but ruled in different ways for each State. However, generally, they are applied when the conduct of person who caused the damage was intentionally directed to cause damage or is put in place without regard to the protection and safety standards. Usually they cannot be awarded for breach of contract, unless it also leads to an independent tort.

Historically, in Italy, punitive damages generally were not recognized, because the sanctioning purpose is not consistent with the civil law principles, anchored to the concept that the reimbursement of the damage is a simple restoration of financial heritage of the damaged person.

Therefore, the recognition of punitive damage established by a foreign judgment was normally denied due to a violation of the public policy (“ordre public”), so those judgments did not have access to the Italian legal system.

The sentence n° 16601/2017 of the 5 July 2017 of the Joint Sessions of Italian Supreme Court (“Sezioni Unite della Corte di Cassazione”) however, changed the cards on the table. In this particular case, the plaintiff applied to the Venice Court of Appeal for the recognition (pursuant to art. 64, law 218/1995) of three judgments of District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida that, accepting a guarantee call submitted by an American retailer of helmets against the Italian company, condemned this latter to pay 1.436.136,87 USD (in addition to legal expenses and interests) for the damages caused by a defect in the helmet used in occasion of the accident.

The Venice Court of Appeal recognized the foreign judgment, considering the abovementioned sum merely as compensation for damages and not as punitive damages. This decision was challenged by the unsuccessful Italian party before the Italian Supreme Court, arguing the violation of the Italian ordre public by the US judgment, on the basis of a consolidated juridical opinion until that day.

The Supreme Court of Cassation confirmed the Venice Court assessment, considering the sum non-punitive and recognized the US judgment in Italy.

The Supreme Court, though, took the opportunity to address the question of the admissibility of punitive damages in Italy, changing the previous orientation (see Cass. 1781/2012).

According to the Court, the concept of civil liability as mere compensation of the damage suffered is to be considered obsolete, given the evolution of this institute through national and European legislation and case-law that introduced civil remedies intended to punish the wrongdoer. As a matter of fact, in our system, it’s possible to find several cases of damages with sanctioning function: in the matter of libel by press (art. 12 L. 47/48), copyright (art. 158 L. 633/41), industrial property (art. 125 D. Lgs. 30/2005), abuse of process (art. 96 comma 3 c.p.c. e art. 26 comma 2 c.p.a.), labour law (art. 18, comma 14), family law (art. 709-ter c.p.c.) and others.

The Supreme Court has, therefore, stated the following principle: “Under Italian law, civil liability is aimed not only to compensate for losses incurred by the injured party, but also to reform the defendant and others from engaging in conduct similar. Therefore, the US legal institute of punitive damages is not incompatible with the Italian legal system”.

The important consequence is that this decision opens the door to possible recognition of foreign sentences that condemn a party to pay a sum higher than the amount sufficient to compensate the suffered injury as a result of the damage.

To that end, however, the Supreme Court has set certain conditions so that foreign sentences have validity, that is to say that the decision is made in foreign law system on a normative basis that:

  1. Clearly establish the cases in which it is possible to convict a party to pay punitive damages; and
  2. The predictability of it; and
  3. Establish quantitative limits.

It has to be clarified that the sentence has not modified the Italian system of civil liability. In other words, the sentence will not allow Italian Judges to establish punitive damages under Italian law.

As for foreign court decisions, it will be now possible to obtain a compensation for punitive damages through the recognition and enforcement of a foreign judgment, as long as they respect the above requirements.

Extending our view beyond the Italian borders, we notice that punitive damages are alien to the legal tradition of most of  European States: there is the possibility, though, that other Courts of continental Europe might follow the decision of the Italian Supreme Court and recognize foreign judgments which grant punitive damages.


How to prevent this new risk

There are several measures which businessmen can adopt to mitigate this new risk: firstly the adoption of contractual clauses that exclude this kind of damages or establish a cap on the amount of the contractual damages which can be claimed, for example by limiting the value of damages at the price of the products or services provided.

Furthermore, it’s very important to have an overall knowledge of the legislation and case law of the markets in which the enterprise operates, even indirectly (for example: with the commercial distribution of products) in order to choose consciously the applicable law to the contract and the dispute resolution methods (for example: establishing the jurisdiction in a country that does not provide for punitive damages).

Finally, this type of liability and risk may also be covered by a product liability insurance.

Roberto Luzi Crivellini
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